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Tony Blair's therapeutic state

In New Britain we are not citizens, but clients, says Michael Fitzpatrick

In his new year message, delivered at Trimdon Community Centre in his constituency of Sedgefield, County Durham, Tony Blair declared that 'a successful nation will develop new bonds of connection, of community': 'Even though today's world is individualised, the age of mass production over, diversity in lifestyle so much more prevalent, people need communities.'

In Paris the previous month Blair was at pains to point out to his fellow leaders of European socialist parties that the Third Way was 'not about splitting the difference between conservatism and social democracy'. This is true: the politics of New Labour reflect the transformation of government itself in the new order that has emerged in Western society since the end of the Cold War. The key feature of this new politics is the therapeutic ethos projected by Blair in his speech at Trimdon. New Labour seeks to promote new forms of bonding and community to replace the mechanisms that once held society together but have been eroded by the social and political events of the past decade.

It is only necessary to contrast the clash between the leaders of the main political parties in Britain today and that of just a decade ago to see how things have changed: on the one hand Tony Blair v William Hague, on the other Neil Kinnock v Margaret Thatcher. Today Blair bestrides British politics like a colossus, while hapless Hague lurches along in his shadow. Even when Thatcher was at her most dominant, there was always some contest. The fact that today there is none is not merely a question of personalities. When the leaders of the old Labour and Conservative parties faced up to one another, they personified rival political parties, conflicting social movements, antagonistic social classes. This complex network of traditions, institutions, rituals and activities, to which many, if not most, people in British society once belonged now no longer exists.

Over the past decade changes which had been for years slowly undermining the structures of British politics acquired a new momentum. Tony's cronies are the new elite of British society and New Labour is their vehicle, a machine far removed from the one that once served the trade union bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the disgrace of former leading figures in the Conservative Party has become a source of popular entertainment: Jonathan Aitken - just released from prison with an electronic tag; Jeffrey Archer - forced to withdraw from the London mayoral contest amid allegations of perjury and worse; Neil Hamilton - condemned as corrupt and dishonest in the libel circus. All this confirms the demise of what was regarded until recently as the most successful political movement in modern history.

Yet the decay of venerable institutions is not confined to the Tory Party - look at the state of the monarchy, the House of Lords, the established church, the BBC, the TUC. No doubt, at bottom, Britain remains a class-divided society. But social class has become a safe subject for academic study and comedy sketches - it has no political significance in the life of the nation.

Tony Blair is all powerful, but remarkably insecure. In his speech at Trimdon he emphasised that 'we have every reason to be confident' and, as though to reassure himself, he repeated the word 'confident' several times. Blair's personal intervention in the contest for the London mayor - involving several attendances at local Labour Party meetings - reveals an extraordinary lack of confidence in his own position.

New Labour's insecurity, despite its apparently unassailable parliamentary majority and its opinion poll ratings, reflects that of the wider elite of Western society of which it is a part. When Tony Blair told his socialist colleagues in Paris that New Labour stood for 'enterprise and fairness', the more traditionalist Lionel Jospin observed that he believed 'in a market economy but not in a market society'. In reply Blair blustered that 'we are both saying we must rise to the challenge of change - and do it true to our values...solidarity, social justice, community, opportunity and responsibility together'. What they are both saying is that they embrace the market but are apprehensive about its destructive consequences.

The leaders of all Western countries are preoccupied by the way that commercial forces have eroded relations of trust in society and respect for traditional forms of authority. As Blair observed in Trimdon, 'today's world is individualised'. The problem for government is that the institutions which once acted as intermediaries between the individual and society have been weakened and destroyed. The breakdown of families, neighbourhoods, local communities, of any sense of collectivity, is the central preoccupation of modern government. The Third Way, and similar policy innovations in other countries, is an attempt to 'develop new bonds of connection' to replace those that have been lost.

Let's look at three areas of New Labour policy to see the new therapeutic ethos in action.

The government's policies to tackle social exclusion have been criticised by voices from the old left for their neglect of material inequality. They produce statistics which demonstrate growing inequalities of income and wealth and increasing differentials in standards of health and other measures of wellbeing. Furthermore they argue that New Labour's policies - notably the New Deal, the minimum wage and various tax and benefit changes - are targeted at poor people who are able to work, whereas the benefit levels of those (the vast majority) who are unable to work remain too low to guarantee a decent livelihood.

All these points are fair enough, but they miss the real point of the government's policies on social exclusion, which are not intended to reduce inequality but to foster a therapeutic relationship between the state and recipients of welfare benefits. The key innovation of the New Deal is that unemployed young people are dealt with individually rather than in the mass. Each person is personally interviewed and individually assessed: the emphasis is not on finding jobs for people, but on making people attractive to employers, through training, work experience, counselling in preparing a CV, interview skills, self-presentation, etc.

Other aspects of the government's social exclusion programme, such as the Sure Start initiative to enhance parenting skills - which received a further boost with the launch of the National Family and Parenting Institute at the end of last year - also aim to provide new points of contact between isolated individuals and the state. Critics object that these initiatives - like parallel 'action zone' projects in health, education and other areas - tend to be localised and do not therefore amount to a comprehensive challenge to increasing social inequality. This is again true, and again misses the point: the aim is not to reduce poverty but to moralise the poor. Hence the symbolic and exemplary value of these schemes is more important than their universal provision.

In his Trimdon speech Blair reiterated the old soundbite about being 'both tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'. Some civil libertarians have criticised New Labour's 'three strikes and you're inside' policy for burglars as a crude populist gesture imported from the USA (where it has boosted the prison population but not reduced the crime rate), and attacked plans for compulsory drugs testing for anybody suspected of a criminal offence. Yet Blair boldly recommended both policies to Trimdon and the nation.

Blair's critics are right to condemn these repressive measures, but again, many of them miss the real substance of New Labour policy. The more significant shift in penal policy is reflected in the change in the title of the Probation Service to the Community Punishment and Rehabilitation Service. 'Punishment' is an obvious concession to that key Blairite constituency, the readership of the Daily Mail. But 'rehabilitation' is the true spirit of New Labour. Both inside prison and outside it, offenders are now more likely to be subjected to various forms of therapy and counselling than they are to traditional modes of punishment.

The ascendancy of 'treatment' over 'punishment' is particularly apparent in the sphere of drug-related offences. Here the line has become increasingly blurred between voluntary enrolment in programmes of 'detoxification' and counselling, and mandatory involvement in such schemes as an alternative to prison or as a condition of bail or probation. In this process the criminal justice system has widened its sphere of operation in the community and has recruited the services of numerous counsellors and therapists, not to mention thousands of GPs now involved in providing methadone to their patients in collaboration with drug agencies. This whole exercise is supported by specious statistics that both exaggerate the scale of the relationship between drugs and crime and the efficacy of treatment.

A third area in which New Labour's therapeutic ethos is evident is that of consumer protection. November's Queen's Speech included a range of measures promising to enhance the safety of the public against dangers in the spheres of transport, from the environment, and indeed in the supermarket. The crusade against 'rip-off Britain' is a major New Labour initiative which seeks to protect the consumer from rapacious shopkeepers selling overpriced commodities perhaps secretly laced with genetically modified, mad cow-infected or otherwise toxic ingredients.

Just as the poor need advice and support, and junkies need to be weaned from dependency on drugs to another form of dependency, consumers need to be shielded from the sharp practices of the market place and advised how best to complain about the poor standards of public services.

In his penetrating analysis of the new forms of government emerging in the USA, James L Nolan notes that 'although often subtly, the state employs a therapeutic form of legitimation to control socially those within its domain' (The Therapeutic State, 1998). Under New Labour the therapeutic state has made rapid advances in Britain, too, over the past few years, fostering a relationship between government and citizen in terms of therapist and client.

The subject of the therapeutic state is the vulnerable or the victim, above all the child - hence the emblematic significance of child poverty in the rhetoric of New Labour. The government's emphasis on the feebleness of the individual in society serves to justify its drive to intrude more and more into the regulation of everyday life. Whereas once parents were free to bring up their children without state interference, they are now subjected to the attentions of intrusive professionals. Criminals who were once left to serve their time in peace are now expected to participate in group therapy, where failure to expose their deepest emotional traumas will be interpreted as denial and may lead to a longer sentence.

Nolan notes that the 'apparently coercive' initiatives of the therapeutic state 'are largely accepted by American citizens and are not seen to be coercive per se'. This is also a striking feature of the response to New Labour's therapeutic policies in Britain. Thus, while liberal commentators are critical of Blair's drug-testing proposals and Jack Straw's anti-terrorist measures, they enthusiastically supports the New Deal, Sure Start, the parenting institute, the treatment of drug users and the protection of consumers. Yet, as Nolan observes, the promotion of therapeutic policies allows the state to 'move into previously untouched realms of social life'.

Assuming expertise and authority at one pole and passivity and incapacity at the other, the relationship between state as therapist and citizen as client is more likely to reinforce dependence than to unleash the potential of the individual or to restore the fraying bonds of community.

Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000



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